Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
It was barely 6:15 on a Tuesday evening, and Bruno's on Fourth was packed. Since opening this summer in the former Rubix space on the edge of downtown Santa Rosa, it's been a popular haunt for diners craving upscale American comfort staples like flat-iron steak and fries, pulled pork with slaw and jalapeño aioli and macaroni-ham casserole.
Yet with only about a dozen tables, plus seating for another half-dozen at the bar that fronts the kitchen, the cottage-like cafe doesn't take reservations for parties of less than six. By some sly fate, however, my group of three arrived mere minutes before the crush. We scored not just a table, but the best one in the house, a cozy little number featuring a built-in window seat that offers a birds-eye view of the partially open kitchen and the boisterous hubbub of fellow diners.
We also tripped upon a great discovery: among the half-pound cheeseburgers and wedge BLT salads, chef-owner Rich Bruno, formerly of the Bohemian Club and Chateau Souverain, is putting out some inspired, high-end dishes worthy of a more important restaurant. We'd been munching on crusty-edged, meltingly-soft-inside bread and butter, sipping a citrusy '05 Matua New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50), and commenting on how well an ice-cold Hank's root beer ($2.50) goes with Bruno's crisp calamari ($8.50), when our waitress brought our second appetizer, rock salt-roasted prawns ($10.95).The calamari had been very good, a generous serving of meaty knots and chewy tentacles in a crisp, salty batter alongside mildly sweet tartar and a zippy horseradish cocktail sauce. Terrific bar food to pair with a beer. But the prawns were the stunning stuff of fine dining, bringing a big bowl of light, creamy shrimp bisque floating with juicy chunks of tomato, handfuls of fresh herbs and four perfect crustaceans that had been roasted in rock salt so that crystals still clung here and there. By the time the entrées arrived, we'd sopped the dish dry with bread.Fish and chips ($14.95) were a solid favorite, with a puffy, friendly Mrs. Paul's&–like beer batter and mounds of skinny fries. An evening's special of pot roast ($15.95) was satisfying, too, the meat mounded on thick mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, carrots and zucchini. A bit more slow cooking to tenderize the meat, more butter in the potatoes, and this dish would really have shined. The lamb shank ($19.95), however, was stellar. Braised to fall-off-the-bone tenderness and slathered in a wonderfully rich Port reduction over mashed potatoes, it was a delicious bargain.
American comfort food means excessive desserts, and Bruno's brownie ($5.95) fit the bill nicely, stuffing two enormous fudge slabs around vanilla ice cream under a flood of caramel, chocolate sauce and walnuts.
It's impossible to not be charmed by the first-rate, reasonably priced Bruno's. The crowds lining up at the door have figured it out: Go often, and get there early.
Bruno's on Fourth. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner, and Sunday for brunch. 1226 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.569.8222.